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Opinion China faces a new, uneasy balancing act on Russia and Ukraine

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk to each other in Beijing on Feb. 4. (Alexei Druzhinin/AP)
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It might have seemed like a good idea when Chinese President Xi Jinping signed on to a new “no limits” friendship deal with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Feb. 4, right before the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The two countries, after all, share a perceived common enemy, the United States. They also share fear of a similar threat: “encirclement” by NATO on Putin’s part — and on Xi’s, attempts at the “containment” of China by the United States-Britain-Australia alliance, known as AUKUS. Xi and Putin are both authoritarian leaders who see America as a declining power and the Western democratic system as a failure. And both eschew Western notions about human rights.

For Xi, there was an added benefit to the joint statement. It allowed him to send a signal to Taiwan that, in the event that China decided to take the island by force, Beijing could count on a powerful ally in Moscow. In exchange, China tacitly backed Putin’s view that Russia had security concerns in Ukraine, which Putin considers a breakaway province.

But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has brought images of civilian areas being shelled, as well as a global outpouring of support for the brave Ukrainians fighting back, with the Russian leader being roundly vilified. And that has left China awkwardly struggling to adjust.

Chinese officials have swung between statements affirming the principle of “territorial integrity” and Russia’s right to protect its “legitimate security concerns.” They have insisted that the United States is really to blame for the conflict. Foreign ministry spokespeople and the tightly controlled state media won’t use the word “invasion,” instead having called the roughly 200,000 Russian troops pouring into Ukraine “a special military operation.”

China’s reality-bending distortions were on full display on Feb. 25, the day after the first Russian troops crossed the border supported by a missile barrage. China Daily, the Communist Party’s English-language newspaper, carried the front-page headline: “Putin aims to demilitarize Ukraine.”

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Ever since, Chinese media portrayals of the events unfolding in Ukraine read like an alternate universe.

In a March 3 editorial, China Daily opined, “The reason that the US is so keen to portray Russia’s action as an ‘invasion’ is that it fuels the historical fears of European countries.” The editorial said “both sides” in the conflict have concerns to be addressed.

Global Times, another fiercely nationalistic Communist Party tabloid, carried an unsigned opinion piece claiming that Western media “desperately exaggerate the situation of the war and tried hard to paint a scene where Russian troops are ‘invading’ intensively.”

By signing on to its “no limits” friendship pact with Russia, China now finds itself facing isolation on the global stage. Beijing has since tried to inch away from its pro-Russian position to a more neutral stance. For example, it has abstained in votes condemning the invasion in the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly. But neutrality seems increasingly untenable, with U.S. officials warning that China could be hit with countermeasures if it tried to help Russia evade sanctions.

Xi might be feeling a bit envious of India and its prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has similarly staked out a neutral stance on the Ukraine invasion; Russia is India’s key weapons supplier, and India has its own border disputes with China. Yet it has so far escaped much of the backlash.

Even China’s intended signal to Taiwan seems to be running smack up against reality. The Global Times tried to hammer home the original message in a March 1 opinion piece, arguing that America’s reluctance to get involved militarily in Ukraine had undercut U.S. assurances to aid in Taiwan’s defense. “The island of Taiwan is shivering after having witnessed what’s going on in Ukraine,” it wrote, claiming “the sun is setting on the US.”

Taiwan, however, may be taking the exact opposite lesson. The West rallied in a remarkable show of unity to oppose the invasion of Ukraine. Officials in China “will study the response of the international community and note the cohesiveness of U.S. alliances, the seismic shift in Germany’s policy, and the willingness of many countries to impose sanctions,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert with the German Marshall Fund. “This should give China pause.”

Another lesson for Taiwan may be that one side having a massive conventional military advantage does not always translate into a quick military victory against a population willing to fight. The Ukrainian resistance and Western solidarity have strengthened the belief that self-defense “is key to attracting international support,” a Taiwanese friend messaged me from Taipei.

China now faces a new balancing act, feeling obligated to help Russia economically survive sanctions, but not help too much, to avoid collateral damage to its own economy and banking system.

The Sino-Russian friendship agreement might have sounded promising to Beijing when it was signed. But Xi might find that with friends like Putin, China could end up making a lot more adversaries.